Once upon time Britons were also wholehearted Europeans! Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur

img_1078Simon Armitage follows up his exquisite translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with this translation of the Alliterative Morte d’Arthur. Again, as Heaney also did so brilliantly with Beowulf, he manages to render into contemporary language the poem while remaining true to the original’s spirit and content. The almost monotonous relentlessness of the violence in this poem however makes it a somewhat less satifying work that those other two, but it is still an entertaining excursion to the Dark Ages.

The story begins with envoys of the Roman Emperor showing up in Arthur’s court demanding tribute. Arthur responds by declaring war on Rome and setting off on a campaign to assert his own rights in Europe. Behind him, in Britain, he leaves his nephew Mordred as regent… a bad mistake.

Much blood and internal organs are graphically shed as Arthur fights his way across Europe, with Gawain, the greatest of his champions, in the thick of the fighting. Armitage notes in the book’s introduction, that this is an older, more seasoned Gawain than the one we encountered in the Green Knight, but he remains, in his chivilrous concerns, recognisably the same character even in the midst of some very sanguinary battles.

One other thing that struck me about this poem: in it Britain is very much a nation at the heart of Europe, a Celtic kingdom that extends from southern Scotland to central France. Arthur is explicitly represented amongst the Nine Worthies as pre-figuring the unmistakeably pan-European Charlemange and Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade. Hence he is more entitled to the throne of the Roman empire than the man who has demanded tribute of him. It is Ireland and the Scottish Highlands that are the place apart, the uncivilised Atlantic fringes beyond the European mainstream. How times change.

Overall this is a fine, compelling piece of work by one of the most interesting and entertaining of English poets, one who is also currently working at the top of his game

Important insights marred by irritating writing style: Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion

A street in Roque Santeiro market, Luanda, Angola

A street in Roque Santeiro market, Luanda, Angola

The Bottom Billion is well worth reading for presenting some very powerful insights into the causes of conflict and poverty from some imaginative economic analysis. However Prof Collier does rather overegg his argument with the tiresome use of straw men: assigning to his imagined opponents views which almost no one holds. For example how many leftist political scientists would regard the Lord’s Resistance Army as anything other than a manifestation of murderous craziness? Prof Collier suggests at one point that there is some latent sympathy for them in vast swathes of academia.

He also asserts support for his analysis from some dubious historical examples: for example he argues that UNITA’s welcome demise in Angola arose from the imposition of effective measures against blood diamonds, which reduced UNITA’s natural resource wealth.

I worked in Angola when some of these measures were put in place and certainly was a vocal supporter of such sanctions as a means of reducing UNITA’s capacity to kill. But I think most people who know a little of the Angolan conflict would feel that the provision of American intelligence to the Angolan Armed Forces had more of an impact on the destruction of UNITA’s armed insurrection, leading ultimately to the killing of their psychotic leader Jonas Savimbi.

So overall a book worth reading for the important insights drawn from fine research, but requiring of something of a strong stomach to get over Prof Collier’s irritating tendency in this book to suggest that he is the only wise thinker on conflict in the world.

Renko returns to the mean streets of Moscow: Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations

Komsomolskaya (Three Stations) Square

Komsomolskaya (Three Stations) Square

In the years since Investigator Arkady Renko’s first appearance in Gorky Park his fortunes have waxed and waned with the politics of Russia. This has brought him threat of execution, exile on a factory ship as a political undesirable, and rehabilitation in Yeltsin’s Russia.

In Three Stations Renko is once more out of favour with the powers that be. In spite of this he begins to ask awkward questions relating to the dead body of a young woman found with no obvious injuries. Elsewhere Renko’s young friend Zhenya takes it upon himself to try to help a young girl who’s baby has been stolen, also in Three Stations. Their investigations bring them into contact with the excesses of Russia’s contemporary oligarchs and the desperation of the abandoned children who live at the margins of Moscow society.

Renko must rate as one of the nicest detectives in modern crime fiction: the tragedies of his life, his deeply regretted, but very useful, capacity for violence and the mundane horrors of his work never undermines his inate decency, wry humour, and unfailing politeness. In many ways he’s like Inspector Morse but without the grumpiness in a bloodier Russian milieu.

While there is little of the shock of the new that came with Gorky Park’s exploration of Soviet bureaucracy this book is still a cracking thriller, and a return to form of a great series that has lagged somewhat of late. As always Renko is like the most dependable of old friends, a compelling guide and knight errant in the midst of a brutal labyrinth.

Imagining Gettysburg: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara


The Killer Angels is a fine account of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War. Shelby Foote’s magisterial history of that war credits the Union victory at Gettysburg principally to Generals Reynolds and Hancock. However, with the exception of the Confederate General Robert Lee, who is a major protagonist in this novel, for the most part The Killer Angels focuses upon key second and third rank leaders, in particular Longsteet amongst the Confederates and Buford and Chamberlain in the Union army: Buford fought decisively on his own initiative on the first day of the battle to deny the Conferates the high ground, and Chamberlain, along with others such as Paddy O’Rorke and the New York 140th, conducted a brilliant defense of a hill called Little Round Top on the second day to stop the Union forces from being flanked. Both these incidents had been overshadowed in other accounts of the battle, including Foote’s. Here the defence of Little Round Top is the centrepiece of the book, vividly described and for me the novel’s highlight. In emphasising the Little Round Top fight Shaara ensures that Chamberlain, one of the Civil War’s most outstanding figures, is properly remembered (though, perhaps unfairly, to the exclusion of some others who fought on Little Round Top that day).

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

The book advances the thesis that aside from fine Union leadership Confederate disaster at Gettysbury arose from an overwhelming hubris on the part of Lee who seemed incapable of believing, after so many victories up to that point, that defeat could any longer be a possibility for him. However while there is probably considerable truth to this thesis it is sustained in this novel by the sleight of ignoring Lee’s efforts, stopped by the Union cavalry including a young General Custer, to get behind the Union lines with Stuart’s cavalry in support of Pickett’s charge. Pickett’s charge was a desperate gamble, but maybe not quite the sacrificial affair portrayed here. Indeed Custer and the other cavalry who fought that day should perhaps stand alongside Chamberlain and Buford for the importance of their actions on the third day of the battle in ensuring Union victory.

Foote’s Civil War has been called an American Iliad, and it certainly must rank amongst the outstanding American literature, as well as history, of the twentieth century. In the Killer Angels the Homeric echoes are also poignantly present, most notably in the character of Longstreet, doomed like Cassandra to foresee in the minutest detail the coming disaster, but like her unable to make anyone believe him. The image of Longstreet weeping as he passes on the order for what he knows will be a slaughter of his troops on the last day of the battle is a powerful one.

Overall a fine novel that seeks to honour the courage of all, even those who fought for the vile cause of the Confederacy.

Moments of posturing and murder before the fall of Troy: Christopher Logue’s War Music: an account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad

Achiles and Hector

A exquisitely written and consistently gripping new version of parts of the Iliad, starting from Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon and ending with Achilles arming for battle against Hector.

In between these two points the book is brimming with arresting images and ideas: Hector compared to a desert burned Rommel; Apollo as “Lord of Light and Mice”, the Sun-god and the bringer of plague; The fate of Troy decided in an ill-tempered negotiation amongst the gods echoes contemporary discussions in corridors of power to visit slaughter on nations and cities half a world away; and, almost as an aside, with the consistent referencing to Zeus as “God” and Apollo “his son” Logue asserts significant Greek influences on the development of Christianity, at the same time making the contemporary resonances of the work all the more stark.

I am not familiar with other adaptations or translations of the Iliad so cannot make any useful comparisons, but I found Christopher Logue’s reworking of the Iliad an exceptional work of poetry – funny, chilling, horrific and thought-provoking by turns. A stunning piece of work.

A path to power paved with war crimes: Philip Dwyer’s Napoleon (1769 – 1799)

Bonaparte on the march in Egypt and Syria

Bonaparte on the march in Egypt and Syria

In the course of this fine biography that charts Bonaparte’s rise from Corsica to Consul of France, one particularly distressing anecdote stands out: Following Bonaparte’s capture of Jaffa in 1799 the French troops engaged in a murderous sacking of the town, during which the soldiers kidnapped a large number of women and girls. They were “taken to the French camp and raped. Bonaparte, hearing of this, ordered that all women were to be led into the hospital courtyard by midday on pain of a severe punishment… it was believed that they would be sent back to the ruins of the town where they would find refuge. However a company of chasseurs was assembled to execute them” (p418).

This is very much a political, rather than a military biography of Bonaparte: the reader gets little sense of his tactical genius. The author’s interest is rather focused upon the exercise of power and particularly how Bonaparte parlayed his reputation for military success, often self authored and shamelessly exaggerated, into political power. But while there is little discussion of the battles there is a close consideration of Bonaparte’s role as a general-in-chief, how he organised, or failed to organise his logistics, and his policies towards conquered peoples. The disorganisation of Bonaparte’s march on Cairo pre-figures his failures in his Russian campaign, and the brutality displayed to the Arab populations of Egypt and Syria anticipates the brutality of Europe’s 19th century “scramble for Africa”, and indeed 20th and 21st century Western atrocities in the Middle East.

In considering all of this the author is at pains to emphasise that in terms of ruthlessness Bonaparte was little different from the other commanders of the era, whether British, Austrian or Russian. Yet, while this is undoubtedly true as British policy in Ireland in 1798, for example, confirms, there is something frightening about a man who could make a cold-blooded choice to slaughter those defenceless Palestinian women at Jaffa. Whatever greatness Bonaparte may ultimately have achieved it is dimmed beyond measure when one contemplates it in relation to the terror of those poor women’s last moments.

Bonaparte visits the French plague victims at Jaffa

Bonaparte visits the French plague victims at Jaffa

The book is a triumph in showing Bonaparte’s path to power paralleled by his precipitous moral decline and the growth of his egotism. It is an engrossing and chilling piece of work.

An Irish Butch and Sundance? Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street: The finest novel ever written about the Troubles in the North of Ireland

All stories are love stories...

All stories are love stories…

I started reading Eureka Street one evening when I was working in Angola. I had no expectations of the book and began reading it really only because a friend had given it to me. I was hooked by the first page. In the end I had to take an afternoon off work to finish it I was so gripped. I think someone has described this book as “the Irish War and Peace… with better jokes than Tolstoy”.

I’ve not read War and Peace yet. Rather Eureka Street reminded me of some of the classic “buddy” movies, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with its shifts between high comedy and brutally realistic violence and its focus at core on the friendship between Chuckie and Jake. One is Protestant and the other Catholic, but this is incidental. There is no heavy handed nonsense about friendship across the barricades in the book. Such friendships are commonplace in Belfast as elsewhere. Rather the book is about ordinary young people trying to live ordinary lives in Belfast in the early 90s. Hence this involves drinking, chasing girls and trying to make a living.

The result is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read as it details Jake’s efforts to recover from a broken heart and Chuckie’s efforts to become rich. Of course this is Belfast during the Troubles so violence intrudes shockingly: modest dreams are no defence against buffoons with guns and bombs intent on putting the world to rights.

The book is a testimony to why Belfast is the greatest city in Ireland – blasted to bits for years by invaders and locals alike and still a home to great love, great humour, great decency and great tea!

A masterpiece!